Over the years there has been a plethora of cartoons and half-truths disseminated about Native Americans. They have been pictured as driving Cadillacs with oil wells in their back yards; they have been seen in comic strips drinking Kickapoo joy juice, and there have even been rumors of tribes making millions of dollars through casinos on tribal lands.
Besides the jokes, there was something even worse — the idealization. Thanks to Rousseau’s “noble savage” theory, there appeared the Native American actor on television who cried when he saw the pollution of the land. There were pictures of those who carried crystals in their buckskin pockets, and those who consulted shamans to tell them what to do. These pictures are still common in American society.
Exemplifying these trends is a story told by a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana. The story was told with the humor which the people on the reservation used to view those who insisted on idealizing them.
It seems that a woman from somewhere back East became sick, and the doctors were not able to cure the illness. This woman had read somewhere that Indians were very special people who had a pipeline to the Deity. So, she packed the trunk of her car with cartons of cigarettes — she had heard that Indians liked tobacco — and headed out West toward Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet tribe.
When she got there, she was directed to the Tribal Council. They left the meeting, and she showed them what was in the trunk of her car. The men — they were all men at the time — looked, then they looked away, embarrassed. They didn’t know what to say. She asked them to pray to their gods that her illness would be healed. They were good men; they nodded that they would.
She proceeded to take out of the trunk the dozens of cartons of cigarettes she had brought and handed them out to the men. They didn’t want to refuse. She thanked them and headed back to her home in the East. The men carefully divided the cartons among themselves. At the next Council meeting, the men decided to pray a long, simple prayer to Jesus to heal her. They didn’t know what else to do, but to hope that she would be all right. When people in the community heard about it, they repeated the story in a gentle, humorous way.
Why is this story humorous? Because she didn’t know who they really were, and they were kind enough not to tell her. This story was true. So, what was the harm in it all? Thankfully, not so much. But, there is harm in seeing the world through imperfect images, like Plato’s story of a man with his back to the opening of a cave, seeing only the images of shadows in front of him. Seeing the world through shadows is harmful, because in clinging to these secondary images, one never sees the real human beings behind the images.
However, when we are fortunate to see reality, we may find that we have to give up shadowy romanticism. The truth is that the highest crime rates in the United States often exist on reservations — crimes against their own people — sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, even murder. People are bound by a social system where almost all money comes in from a federal government miles away, where jobs are sparse, where HUD builds all the houses alike, and where poverty and alcohol use kill off initiative and wreck lives.
In spite of these tremendous obstacles, there is great good. There are grandmothers who are caretakers of the next generation, there is a marvelous, subtle humor, there are quiet ways with no need to talk all the time, and their respect for oral history. Forget the intertribal warfare of the past, the showering of guilt upon ourselves for what has passed away, and discard the idea that federal grant money will bring happiness.
Instead, look upon Native Americans as people created as we ourselves are, sometimes good, sometimes bad. The more we idealize them, the farther away they become from us. They are our brothers and sisters, not a set of theories or a dream. They are real. Love them if you can.